Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Garden of Literary Biography: "Charlotte Bronte: A Fiery Heart" by Claire Harman

         Queen Victoria, then a young woman, stayed up late reading "Jane Eyre."
            Much of the reading public did so too. Its author was the fictional Currer Bell, since actual author Charlotte Bronte, the reclusive elder member of a household of extraordinarily inward-looking siblings, was worried that the work of any woman, much less one of relatively low social status, would not be taken seriously. A reasonable assumption.  
            The above information comes from "Charlotte Bronte: A Fiery Heart" by Claire Harman, a recent biography timed to the bicentennial of the subject's birth.
            If you've read "Jane Eyre" but, like me, knew nearly nothing of the author's life, this account of her life and what the book tags 'the story of the Brontes' makes for fascinating reading --  generally sad, often bizarre, rising to a triumph rare in any lifetime, and unique in the author's own times and circumstances. If you haven't read "Jane Eyre," reading this account of the author's unlikely life will surely prompt you to do so.
            To put Charlotte Bronte's accomplishment in perspective, "Jane Eyre" was a 19th century literary sensation rivaled only by Dickens.
            To explain its originality, biographer Harman describes the book as the first realistic novel written from the point of view of a child. The character grows up in the course of the book, but her early life, with its losses and traumas is told in the voice of the defenseless, but courageous child who experiences them.
            Dickens broke ground in bringing to serious writing the concerns of the lower classes, common people, life's "unfortunates," orphans. "Nicholas Nickleby," a devastating muckraker, exposes the cruel treatment afforded poor orphan boys. Bronte upped the ante -- ground-breaking, new, implicitly shocking -- by exploring circumstances, hardships, and the gamut of human emotions from the perspective of an abused, neglected, but smart and determined girl.
            Readers, including the era's literary lions such as William Thackery (author of "Vanity Fair") were transfixed.
            To add further degrees of phenomenal to this sensation in the history of publication, the book was a first book by a writer no one had ever heard of. And, of course, the publishers had no idea that "Currer Bell" was a pseudonym.
            Only when some other nefarious publisher tried to pirate 'Currer Bell's' work, did Charlotte Bronte come forward, traveling unannounced to London with her sister Anne for courage, to announce her existence in the public room of her publisher's offices and demand that they take actions against infringement of their rights.
            The publisher stares at the strikingly, small, quaintly dressed woman. Literary surprise of the century!
            "You are Currer Bell?"
            This moment was recently captured in an otherwise disappointing recent Masterpiece Theater film, "
To Walk Invisible: The Bronte Sisters,” a striking example of missed opportunity. For, as Claire Harman's book demonstrates, the unique (a word that actually applies in this instance) story of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte is still an incredible tale.
            The Bronte family was poor, isolated, fantastically literate. Their father was an Irish-born Church of England vicar, with a parish in barely civilized Yorkshire (the word 'rude' comes to mind), lacking English relatives or local connections. He was mostly interested in tutoring his only surviving son in Latin and Greek. His wife died after a delivering a seventh child. He sent two daughters, including the elder who at age 10 had assumed the 'mother' role for the younger children to a cheap school with brutal conditions, where they proceeded to die.
            His son Bramwell and the three surviving daughters then created a fantasy world of characters sometimes modeled on real figures -- military and political figures they read about in their father's newspapers -- whose explorations and exploits they wrote about in tiny books made of tinier writing (legible only under magnification). A shared world, that is, into which it would be inaccurate to say the children 'withdrew' since there was virtually nothing to withdraw from.  
            To get the rest of the family details, both stirring and sad, read this well written and researched book -- a biography plus one or more. Suffice it to say that in addition to Charlotte's novels, the family produced a major English poet in Emily Bronte. England in the 19th century did not have a category for female poets (outside, perhaps, a famous poet's wife); recognition for Emily Bronte's poems came in the 20th century. Emily also wrote one of the canonical English novels, "Wuthering Heights," a work that still strikes many of us as alternately brilliant and amateurish. And a book that gave us archetypes of a passionate connection too strong for life, or death.
            Charlotte's "Jane Eyre" was a sensation, a cultural gut-check, a new and deeper exploration of society and the individual. In a time before movies, it spawned theatrical exploitations of its popularity.
            Emily's "Wuthering Heights" too was a sensation, but also a scandal. Too much candor for the English public to accept from a woman.
            Outside of the shadow of her talented sisters, Anne Bronte's fiction and poetry makes the sort of interesting early 19th century 'women's writing' that PhD candidates study.
            What happens to their sad brother and the three Bronte sisters rewards any reader's attention, though it won't make us happy. I need add only one significant fact about their father. Reader, he outlived them all.